Q Tank hands off at the end of his shift. “The extractor’s running near the edge of the seam so there’s a few contaminants. Watch the pH.” His safety mask makes his voice echo oddly at the same time it muffles it.He trudges up the ramp along the access tunnel, his feet automatically stepping past ruts and holes in the worn surface. It was laser smooth when first carved out of the rusty bedrock but no more. He joins the growing queue waiting for the lift. He exchanges nods with some, grunts with a few. He’d have liked to remove his mask in the lift but that’s a mistake a miner only makes once. There are a thousand ways those sharing a shift can pay you back for shoving them in the ribs.
They all shed their masks with the timing of a synchronised swim team as they emerge into the open air. Q Tank scratches furiously at his stubble. The dry air of the ventilator always has that effect. He’s not the only one still scratching as he climbs onto the shuttle bus. The seats are metal wire baskets but they’re easier than anything else to sit on in mining gear.
The doors slam shut. The driver spins the field ninety degrees and the agrav kicks in. The shuttle’s nothing more than a converted container with the agrav drive attached. Like a lot else out here, it’s ugly but it works. The agrav lifts the clumsy box up with the almost-soundless vibrations that get into your bones more deeply than the extractor’s. The agrav’s second-rate, the conductors plated with local gold, rather than palladium which would eliminate the vibration. The company says they use gold because of pride in their product; the miners say the company directors are a bunch of two-bit penny-pinchers with no concern for workers welfare. But the motor’s fast. It whips them across two hundred kilometres of desert to Coober Pedy.
Someone, with more of a sense of humour than they deserve, has cut windows into the container. There’s nothing out there to see but they let hot baked dust into the cabin. A giant ladder of red and purple clouds climb from the horizon to cover half the sky. Q Tank watches the wide sunset that marks the end of his ten hour day fade away. He learnt long ago the clouds are only teasing. The last rains out here were over four years ago.
By the time they reach the white man’s hole, the scrap metal of the only tree in town is pinging as it cools along with everything else in the desert evening. He steps from the shuttle, snorting derisively at the rookies who betray themselves by looking for the source of the strange sound. He doesn’t stay to give them the ribbing they deserve, leaving that pleasure to Flano and his mates.
Q Tank’s dugout isn’t the closest to the shuttle, but he prefers it that way. The heat beats up at him from the plascrete of the street as he makes his way home. Despite the gear still on his back he feels the movement ease some of the kinks from his shoulders before he reaches his front door. The bioscanner recognises him as he approaches, the lock clicks and the door slides aside. Just inside, he strips, dumping gear, clothes, even his boots into the refresher. They’ll cycle through and reappear in a couple of hours ready for his next shift.
The itch between his shoulder blades starts. The extractor’s main bracer sits there so the vibration does things to his skin. He turns his back to the arch just inside the entranceway and sways back and forth, appreciating the rough scratching of the sandstone. Most tourists go on about the rose and spiral patterning the drills create when they cut the dugouts but Q Tank’s tastes are more practical. He doesn’t notice that nor the subtle palette of oxidised stone.
There’s no mirrors in his dugout. No one to notice the hair on his chest is greyer than it used to be. But he notices the stiffness in his joints is getting worse when he forces the fridge open. He shakes off the frisson of anxiety the tightness triggers by grabbing for a beer. He pops the cap as he passes the bench and heads to the bathroom. If the computer isn’t glitchey, the bath should’ve started running when the door opened.
As the bathroom door slides aside a welcome puff of steam billows out. So the power grid is having one of its better days. The first handspan or so of bath is industry-standard and corporation-compulsory foam. It extracts the traces of heavy metals from his system that working the extractor in the gold mine puts in. He takes a pull on his beer and, with long practice, slides under the foam into the hot water. The beer extracts other things.
“Suds within; suds without.” He makes the same joke every day. And as with every other day, there’s no one there to laugh.
But today there’s one difference. The warm suds don’t reinvigorate like normal. A little more slowly than usual, he pulls on a clean terracotta shirt and black trousers. It’ll take more than a little tiredness to put him off his routine. Clean, dressed and free of the rust dust of the mine he heads out. The pub is closer than the shuttle stop.
The red healer lying outside the front door of the Settling Dust doesn’t bother to open even one eye as he passes. Inside, the recessed lights blush through the claret coloured rock, giving the prefab chairs and tables the illusion of chicness. The walls are a hub of local info from the jumble of posters from old gigs, for sale signs from those moving on to other fields, the usual rewards offered for things lost in the last binge and more signs from Mars Consortium looking for workers. Rumour is they’re not so much expanding, as the posters claim, as having trouble hanging onto staff. He gives them a cursory glance. Nothing new there.
He heads to his usual russet booth, past the living fixtures. Old guys clinging to liquid lifelines with weathered hands. Despite the company foam, the desert dust has worked its way into their aging bodies, hardening their lungs and roughening their skin to brick. A few more years and they’d be petrified, just a few more boulders scattered across the red centre. He plants his butt on the lip of his bench and slides across the sealed rock to the ruby dark of his chosen corner. A beer appears in front of him and he drinks as if it’s his first. Tomorrow’s a rest day and he’ll need his quota to get through it. It’s bad enough he dreams endlessly of red rock and dust, but to have to live in it without the distraction of work is beyond tolerance. After a couple more, he looks up.
There’s a quartet of pretty young things on stools at the bar. He hadn’t noticed them when he walked in. They must have flown in on the afternoon tourist flight. Flano and his mates are doing their best to chat them up, but they’re not getting anywhere. They seem to be enjoying the sport, though. Q Tank shrugs, thinking it’s hardly worth the effort. And is instantly chilled.
He looks from Flano’s group to the living fixtures. They’re not even bothering to look. He stares at them in dawning realisation. He’s seeing his future. Is this all he’ll ever be?
With a shudder, he downs the last of his beer and shakes his head at Rosie as she prepares to bring him a fresh one. He stands up and leaves, aware of the barmaid’s startled eyes watching as he heads out the door.
Once back aboveground he hesitates. For many years he’s never thought about what’s next. Routine did his thinking for him but he’s broken that. Now what?
He looks up for inspiration. Overhead a wide, white swathe of stars blaze across the night sky. Out here in the desert the meagre lights of Coober Pedy can’t compete with that brilliance. Even in the middle of the main street they’re clear enough for him to see the dark shapes of the emu and his egg within the Milky Way’s bright path.
A stray memory comes to him. He nearly turns to go back into the pub but the thought of the look on Rosie’s face stops him. No doubt she’ll ask questions and he doesn’t have any answers. Not yet.
When he returns to his dugout a note is automatically generated and sent to the company psychologist. Q Tank knows the company’s routine as well as his own but doesn’t care. By the time the shrink gets round to checking he’ll be moving on. He calls up the relevant material, punches in the necessary information. Then he goes to bed with the unfamiliar feeling of satisfaction. At least he has something to do on his rest day.
He’s up early, dresses in what passes for town clothes and catches the daily hopper to Alice. The shrink gets another note in her inbox. He steps onto the terminal surface in town as the dust lifted by the agrav engines is settling back, mostly onto the lower parts of his trousers. He’s never looked them up before and as he doesn’t ask directions it takes him a few hours to find the offices of Mars Consortium. By the time he enters the wide, filtered and ventilated lobby he’s starting to think about beer. But he fronts up to the counter and gives his name.
The secretary taps long painted nails on the console, pauses as if for effect while loading his record and psych eval, and asks him to wait. He sinks into the nearest leather couch and passes a few minutes estimating how many months of his pay it would cost him to buy the furnishings in this showpiece. Then a voice calls, “Quentin Poole.”
It takes Q Tank a moment to remember that’s his name. With a start, he gets up and follows a be-suited figure into the interview room. He stands on the marked spot and listens to the whir and hiccup of the scanners. The magnetic resonators need an overhaul, which makes him wonder how often they’re used.
They spin down to silence finally. Interview over.
“Congratulations Mister Poole. Here are your transfer papers.”
“What about the penalties for leaving my mining contract early?” He’d renewed it without thinking two months before.
“All paid for by Mars Consortium. We’ve also notified your habitation computer to pack your belongings for storage. You won’t require them while in training.” The suit passes him a folder of documents. “Here’s your Training Contract. Earth regulations specify off-world work contracts cannot be made permanent until a month after commencement. Anything else Mars Consortium can do for you?”
“No. Thanks.” He’s sorry he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Rosie but, like his shift mates, she’s used to departures. The shrink will no doubt be relieved to not have to follow him up.
“Welcome to Mars Consortium, Mister Poole.” He shakes the suit’s hand. It’s soft, the hand of someone who’s never worked anything heavy.
They send him to Siberia first. Permafrost maintenance gives Mars Consortium envirocredits while acclimatising their workers for the freezing temperatures of Mars. After Siberia, he’s shipped out to Lunar Colony. Watching the Earth shrink to a shining blue ball in the rearview windows feels like evidence of his changing life.
The first week on the Moon he spends in the med facilities. There’s little routine other than the low grav physical training. After the necessary program of shots for preventing bone and muscle loss, he has to stay longer for another set to completely purge his system of contaminants the mining company foam didn’t clear. He should have drunk more beer.
Every afternoon the Lunar Orientation Officer comes by. “Anything else Mars Consortium can do for you?” With time on his hands he tries to think of something but he can’t. They know their work too well.
When he’s released, he goes to work on the Lunar tunnels round Mars Consortium Resort. With Mars’ gravity only about a third of Earth’s, many of the long-term workers holiday on the Moon rather than on Earth, taking a break from the weight of the world. They train him on the low grav equipment while he extends their facilities.
He goes to work in shirt sleeves and shorts. In low grav all the operating surfaces and bit ends are sealed to try to contain the wandering dust. So, apart from his steel caps, he gets to dress like admin. But, despite the seals, at each shift end the fine, pale dust has transformed him into a powdered ghost.
They rotate him through the different equipment; thorium and titanium extractors, habitat drilling, silicon condensors. Despite the adaptations for rock composition and gravity it’s not that different from mining in Coober. The rock is gritty and grey, and all the silicon means he has to be careful to prevent the hoses shredding. The important ones are lined in diamond dust. He learns to decouple the hoses at each shift end and insert them onto the line scanner to renew the coating.
Drinking from bulbs instead of glasses is a novelty. Glasses are poor containers in low grav. He misses having a good head on his beer, but the local brewers are worth Earth-weight, as the saying goes. They found a way for moon beer to foam in the mouth, creamy and bitter. He dedicates the necessary time to get used to it.
On his days off he goes for walks on the surface. He has to gear up but he likes standing beneath the wide, dark spaces waiting for Earthrise. The stars here are bigger than in the desert and they blaze with pure white intensity, calling to him from beyond the limits of the Solar System. He can still see the emu and his egg, blacker than ever, though the perspective is skewed so they look as though Picasso has got to them. He traces their shapes while the Earth rolls round and the familiar shape of Australia appears.
It takes him a while to get his efficiency up. There’s a different flow to working when everything weighs a tenth of what it should. But two months later he gets the call he’s been waiting for. He hops the grav train to the equator and waits in line to ascend the orbital lift to the transfer point.
Once on Lunar Station, he shifts hand over hand to disembark into the central hub. From there the spokes flare outwards to the station rim where rotation produces artificial gravity. He now moves with practiced ease, aiming each movement to his chosen landing point. He snorts at the newbies, still focusing on where their feet and hands are pushing from, rather than where they’re aiming for. They tumble off in random directions, the automated grab-arms constantly having to collect and guide them. He heads down the most direct spoke to the transfer point, bringing his legs under him as the spinning of the outer rim returns perceptible gravity to his mass.
The gate for the Mars Shuttle is decorated in faux gems, copies of the brilliants found in its massive volcanoes, as well as images of the pleasure domes. Many things now illegal on Earth and Lunar Colony are freely, and cheaply, available on Mars. It gives Mars guaranteed tourism, supplementing Mars Consortium credit flow.
Q Tank’s pleasures are legal everywhere. He’s never seen the point in giving the law the chance to interfere with them. He swipes a bulb of Grey Foam, the best of the local brews, from the bar and takes his seat. He depresses the button and crash webbing deploys above him. He drinks his bulb while waiting for the tourists, still shrieking and giggling from their struggles with low grav, to get settled.
The crew do their last checks and the door cycles closed. The shuttle unclamps, swinging wide to slingshot round the moon. Q Tank watches the white and drab tones of the lunar landscape slide away below, changing to black against black as they move to the dark side. Minutes later they’re out of shadow and a cheer goes up. They’re now on their heading to Mars.
The tourists immediately start ordering, preparing for the days ahead. The crew comes through the cabin with syringes, bulbs and breathers in coded colours. Q Tank watches out the window while there’s something other than deep darkness to see.
He shifts uncomfortably. Too many days and weeks before Mars with nothing to do. If they’d sort out the kinks in cryo he wouldn’t have to be aware of the slow drag of time. They’ve been saying ‘next year’ for the past fifteen. He depresses another button and his seat rolls up round him, morphing to a sleeping pod. By the time the chime at the end of his sleep period sounds the tourists have descended into a blackness of their own making.
The passenger areas are within the rotating sections in the middle of the shuttle. Engines and cargo are at either end. The rotation is only fast enough to produce gravity about a third of Earth standard. Mars Consortium saving fuel, probably, though no doubt they claim it’s to acclimatise the passengers to Mars’ gravity. Either way, it’s enough for him to feel his weight after the moon, and to move about safely. He hits the release, cutting away the webbing, and goes back to the bar.
The shuttle has onboard flesh rooms, but they’re serviced by ‘bots, which he avoids. Too much like the jokes about the extractors. There are vids, of course, but he’s seen everything on FoxMoon. He flips through the library anyway and notices an historical crime drama set on Mars. The wise-cracks are strained and the plot unlikely. If he didn’t have time to pass he’d have turned it off partway, but he let it run its course and the hero gets her girl. That passes a couple of hours. Which leaves only several hundred more.
In the gym he works up a sweat without a machine in his hands, which is a bit strange but as good a distraction as any. The sonic shower sets his teeth on edge. They’re good for conserving water, and he appreciates their efficiency, but he doesn’t like them. One good thing about Mars, he thinks cheerfully, plenty of water. Unlike the desert, unlike the moon. It only has to be stripped and melted from the bedrock.
Returning to his seat the tourists are still out of it. He goes to the bar for another bulb but the lounge is no longer empty. There’s a woman, sitting on the plush seats and staring into the endless dark beyond the windows. Her hair’s short and her coverall’s worn in patches. Here’s an opportunity to pass more time. He takes the seat next to her.
“You work on Mars?”
She drags her gaze back from the infinite and looks at him. “For Mars Consortium, yes.” Her glance takes in his clothes, the short cropped hair and pepper Moondust stains in his skin. “You new?”
He nods, holds out his hand. “Q Tank.”
She shakes it with the callouses of someone who knows their way round a polisher. “Sylvi.”
“You work in the gem mine?”
“Callouses, huh?” he nods and notices her relax. He’s established his credentials. They compare notes between the mines of Olympus Mons, Coober Pedy and the diamond mines of Africa where she started. Sylvi’s done well for herself since Marsfall. She’s now management, among other things.
Over the next days they talk often. One morning a lad who couldn’t be more than three totters in to join them. Sylvi greets him with a warm hug, then turns him to face Q Tank.
“Ned, I’d like you to meet Q Tank.”
“Hi Ned.” He grins at Sylvi. “One of yours?”
“Mars born have to visit Earth before school years to secure their citizenship.”
Q Tank nods. “Everyone knows those advantages.”
As they continue to talk in the days of transit, Q Tank’s dreams change. He no longer sees the red dust of the desert, nor the grey dust of the Moon. In their place is a new life, one filled with family, with friends who are more than drinking mates or shift mates and wide horizons that lead to the infinite reaches of space.
By the time they’re strapping in on the edge of Mars’ gravity well he’s certain of his life to come, as he is of Sylvi’s friendship. Mars’ weak gravity makes it a long planetfall and Q Tank falls asleep with a bulb of Grey Foam inside him. He wakes as the agrav cuts in completely. The shuttle’s fall stops as the kinetic energy of their momentum is converted to photons within the resonant field of the drive. They touch down with the gentleness of a feather.
He unstraps when the indicators tell him to. He looks about but Sylvi and Ned are already gone. For an uncomfortable moment he worries he didn’t say goodbye to them. But he tells himself the shuttle crew like to offload kids first and he’ll see them in the terminal.
Only he doesn’t. Who he does see is another Orientation Officer. He’s thin, as if the winds of Mars have worn him down to a nub, with a voice like degraded brake pads.
“Quentin Poole?”
“Q Tank.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Everyone calls me Q Tank.”
“Of course. Here is your final contract, Mister Q Tank. Please sign it.”
“I thought I don’t sign until the end of the month’s probation?”
“Not necessary in your case, Mister Q Tank. The Consortium has reviewed all your training and work history and has complete confidence in you.”
He hesitates. Once he signs that contract he has to stay for at least five years, seven if they can’t find a replacement. The penalty clauses make sure of that. Any earlier and he has to repay the Consortium for his training, something beyond any hope of his ever repaying.
“Is there a problem, Mister Q Tank? Something else the Mars Consortium can do for you?”
He thinks of the new life he’s dreamt, of Sylvi and their friendship and of all the wonderful things about life on Mars she’s told him about. From what she’s said the Consortium is as good as they paint themselves to be.
“I guess not.” He signs.
As soon as the Orientation Officer’s data pad flashes green to indicate the contract is finalised and recorded, he snaps it under his arm and says briskly, “Please answer to Quentin Poole in all official dealings with the Consortium.”
Q Tank nods absently, craning his head about looking for Sylvi.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for Sylvi. I met her on the shuttle.”
“Sylvi Green?”
“Sylvi Green is in Closing. Her job is to ensure you sign. You’ve signed, her job is finished.”
“Are there two Sylvi Greens? My friend works in the Olympus Mons gem mine. We spent the trip from Lunar Station together.” He protests in surprise.
The suit gives him the kind of look Q Tank gives to rookies. “She didn’t sign at landing and was only in the mine a month. That’s when she was offered Closing. Mars Consortium needs workers.”
“You can’t stop me talking to a friend.”
The suit laughs. “No need.”
Q Tank wonders why the Consortium has an A-grade pus-hole for an Orientation Officer but he lets it slide. You get them everywhere. He collects his bags and turns towards transport for the central habitat domes but pus-face insists he’s needed immediately.
“Hey. I can take time to have a look around first.”
“Read your contract. That is the tube to your workstation. Get on it. Now.”
The sides of the tubes are clear, letting him see the red lava plains stretching away far to the north. The main habitat domes are on the edge of Ismenius Lacus but the fretted terrain is cut by many gorges. They pass over a gorge so deep he can’t see the bottom. The distant sunlight barely warms the florid orange walls.
His tube stop is for staff only. The heaters aren’t working well and he shivers as he looks about. Just beyond the platform is a sorry looking circle of dormitories. Q Tank looks at the bruiser coming towards him, looking more like a bouncer back at the Settling Dust than a foreman. “You Quentin Poole?”
“Q Tank.”
“Cute. Gear up over there and be ready in five minutes.”
The foreman checks his equipment and nods with satisfaction. He shows him a narrow cot. “You’ll sleep here between shifts.”
“Okay.” You don’t see décor when you’re asleep, anyway. “And where do I stay on my off time?”
“What off time? Read your contract. We’re drilling much needed accommodation for Mars Consortium. Maybe when we’ve dug enough we’ll all get better quarters. Until then, it’s the dorms.” He shows Q Tank a blueprint of shafts and cross tunnels. “We’re cutting a new habitation area along the length of this gorge. Once the rooms are drilled, and the gorge face sealed, we’ll move to opposite face.”
He lugs his gear to the drill site lift. He watches the far red horizons close in as the doors shut. It’s a long way down. He can feel the press of stone all about him as he sinks ever lower. The shift supervisor shoves a control pad for a drill into his hands. “We need these next four kilometres of access tunnels cleared before we can bring in compactors to cut and seal the rock for the living suites.”
Q Tank nods. “How do I coordinate with the other drillers?” His muffled voice echoes from his mask and off the laser-drilled walls.
“What other drillers? We’re short staffed here.”
“You expect me to cut four kilometres by myself?”
“Read your contract.” The supervisor says and leaves.
Q Tank stares around. He’s enclosed in red rock with a long way to go before the end. He didn’t get time to shave and his chin’s already beginning to itch from the ventilator. He’s holding a drill, not an extractor, but the control pad looks like Coober issue. His hands shake as they never did from drink as he starts it up. As the roar of the engine fills the tunnel, brick coloured dust balloons from all sides, staining his gear, clogging his ventilator.
Sylvi will call when she learns where he’s been berthed, he tells himself. But in five years she never does.

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